Culture, Leadership

Why I’ll Be Happy When “First Ever” Recognition Is a Thing of the Past

Sheryl-Sandberg

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s Long-Time COO, Becomes First Woman On Its Board Of Directors.”

That was the breathless announcement coming from CNBC this week.

As my daughter always says, “Really”?

Here we are in 2012 and to make mention of the fact that she will be the only WOMAN to me just sounds so dated. For that matter, any publicly traded company you would think would have a representative board with women.

Lack of female access to Board seats

I have always been a fan of Ms. Sandberg (that’s her on the right) because she has been always been a top advocate for female leadership in the workplace, writing and speaking on the topic for years — particularly on how she has managed such a high-profile job while having a family.

By the way, she prides herself on leaving every day on time to have dinner with her family. While this may not work for everyone, kudos to her for figuring out her formula for work-life balance.

Women’s access to boardroom seats is small, to say the least. In the U.S, only 16.1 percent of director seats were held by women in 2011. And about one in 10 Fortune 500 corporations have no women at all on their boards, according to research by Catalyst.

One may say that there are not enough women who are ready for a board seat, but I think this is a misnomer. Board seat candidates are, for the most part, identified by executive headhunters, who are the gatekeepers. They source and make the determination as to who is “capable” and “ready.”  Once identified, they  pass through to the first step, which is just to be considered.

So based on that scenario, it could be that they move beyond the normal pond that they and their peers fish in.

Different perspective

On some boards, the absence of women is shocking with no female representation at all. I read a report a while back that determined that women dictate more than 80 percent of household purchasing decisions. So based on that fact alone, it would seem to be an imperative that a corporate board is made of people with a different perspective.

This year was notable for another reason.

According to this year’s Fortune 500, there are a record number of 18 CEO’s that are female. In 2011 there were 11. Worldwide, women represent just over 10 percent of board members, the most ever, according to an April report issued by GMI Ratings, an independent research firm that addresses issues of corporate governance.

I am optimistic that years from now, this type of recognition “First Ever, etc.” will become a relic of the past.

As companies look to enter new markets, become more innovative, cultivate the talent marketplace, and look for every competitive edge possible, they can’t afford to leave any stone unturned. That means, in a lot of cases, looking beyond central casting to fill critical roles.

Corporate self-awareness

Companies should look to fill these roles by understanding where they are headed and what their vision is for the future. That translates into knowing or being in tune with who you are. Self-awareness is one of the most important traits for any aspiring leader.

However, I think that companies and senior leadership should also be self-aware.

  • As an organization, what are the specific qualities that we need in our people to be successful?
  • Do we hire people that are similar to us or different and WHY?
  • Does my personal network reflect similarity or differentiation and WHY?
  • What do we fear most as an organization and how would it look if it came true?
  • What is our organizations definition of success as it relates to our people?
  • What accomplishment are we the most proud of as an organization that is not financial?

This would be a great exercise to go through to get to know the organization (and fittingly) to determine the talent landscape. Knowing that would open a lot of eyes and allow the organization to get out of the same pond that everyone is fishing in when we look for talent.

A great quote that sums this up is related to one of the most dynamic dance duo’s, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.

As cartoonist Bob Thaves noted, “Sure he was great, but don’t forget Ginger Rogers did everything he did backwards … and in high heels!” 

Enough said!

Ron Thomas is CEO of Great Place to Work-GCC countries, based in Dubai. He formerly was Chief HR Officer of the RGTS Group in Saudi Arabia. Ron is also a senior faculty member of the Human Capital Institute. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as a Master Human Capital Strategist (MHCS) and Strategic Workforce Planner (SWP). Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living. Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia. Contact him at ronaldtthomas@gmail.com or on Twitter.